The nearly nine-minute “Hey Jane,” the first single from Sweet Heart Sweet Light, is the sort of brash maximalist pop you’d expect from Jason Pierce and Spiritualized by now. It’s parts are simple, but their combination is dizzying: guitars jangle, organ drones, Pierce’s voice and cracks and croons, female vocalists wail away in the background. Halfway through, it breaks down into a squall of noise that, because Pierce recorded it, we are required to call narcotic, and then the song reemerges as a churning rock epic full of gliding riffs and layered vocals.
In short, it’s a Spiritualized track, more a multi-movement suite than a song, and it is flawlessly executed. But among all those details we get Pierce singing about Jane and all her achetypal, damaged-girl, rock tropes. She’s the one that “lit the fire” and then “fanned the flames,” and only Pierce understands her. Everyone else says she’s got a “rotten soul,” but Pierce says she “loves rock and roll.” The song self-consciously checks off rock tropes, and even name-drops Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” but it’s the triumphant close where Pierce and the choir of voices behind him synch up and sing “Sweet heart, sweet light, sweet heart and love of my life.”
He’s not talking about Jane. Jane is just a stand in. That heart? That light? It’s pop music, and so Pierce presents us with the focus of his album, one that never stops dealing in pop clichés. “Too Late” takes the well-worn “mamma told me” approach, while “Little Girl” finds him both wishing he was dead and that he could fly within the first four lines of the song. The song’s bracing chorus, meant to sound hopeful, ends with the inarticulately dude-rock claim to “get it on.”
If this makes the album sound trite that’s because on first listen it does, at least lyrically. The compositions themselves are consistently arresting, and actually owe more to the short introductory pieces “Huh?” than to “Hey Jane.” Strings swell up and lilt over the sentimental balladry of “Freedom” or “Too Late,” making the album feel more soaring than muddled, even if there’s the more dissonant textures of fuzz on the excellent “Get What You Deserve” or the barbed guitar frenzy of “Headin’ for the Top Now.” The album also represents Pierce’s most far-flung collection, showing how love for pop music and all its light sweetness (or sweet lightness) reaches way out there. The sweaty soul-rock of “Mary” is followed by the Mickey Newbury-esque string-swell of “Life Is A Problem” which leads into the wide-open, colossal dream pop of brilliant closer “So Long You Pretty Thing.”
For a guy so tied to the depravity of pop music and those guazy layers of sound, this is by far his brightest record. It’s also the one that runs the biggest risk by, ironically, not striking as far out on its own as, say, Pierce’s high-water mark, 1997’s Ladies And Gentlemen, We Are Floating In Space. Here Pierce may mold these disparate sounds into his own, but they are homage first and foremost and, in his unabashed sentimentality and use of common rock-pop elements, he runs the risk of retread or, worse, mimicry. What he does instead is both celebrate and complicate them. Jane may love rock and roll and take drugs, but halfway through the song Pierce sneers, “Hey Jane, when you gonna die?” He may be playing with murder balladry on “Get What You Deserve,” but in the end the title is a passive demand. There’s no “you’re gonna” or “I’m gonna make sure you” before it.
If Sweet Heart Sweet Light relies on common rock and pop ideas, it also critques them, scuffing at their veneers to see what’s underneath. Pierce shows both the insipid spectacle of pop music and its undeniable comfort, not to mention its ability to communicate fresh emotion even when it’s saying what you’ve already heard. It’s not a cohesive whole the way past records have been; this isn’t one hour-long movement.
But that’s part of the point. Pierce is calling attention to the pieces, to the songs, giving each its own space and power, and that power is — despite plenty of dark moments of doubt — one that feels undeniably hopeful. Plenty has been made of the fact that that Pierce was undergoing drug treatments for degenerative liver disease during the making of this record. Oddly enough, for a guy whose music has been so tied to and informed (fairly or not) by his drug use in the past, this one doesn’t get pulled down into the fog. It rises above it. Because, as Pierce claims when he says he wants to fly on “Little Girl,” sometimes “you get so grounded that life will pass you by.” Past albums might have romanticized drugs and booze as the way out, but here it’s music, and the album feels more healing as a result, even if its ode to the sweet sounds that came before it presents its own complications and delusions. It’s the bright counterpoint to Ladies and Gentlemen, but in the end it gets to the a similar kind of unrequited want. Music can’t love you back, but it sure feels good when you hear it.